While I’m contemplating what jewellery project to commit to next I’ve been making my own cosmetics. About six years ago I stopped buying commercial beauty products and began making my own, both for health and economic reasons. I’ve made everything from shampoo, conditioner, body butter, lip balms, perfume, face masks, soap, massage oils, to bath-bombs. I even make my own sun-screen, and anti-ageing creams.
Even though I have carried out a lot of my own research into the raw ingredients available, their various properties, and health benefits, I’m still learning new things and coming across new products that might help me make the ultimate moisturiser, or help make my sun-screen bars more effective and safer for me to use in the harsh summer heat and sun.
I did consider the possibilities of selling my products for profit, however, stringent guidelines exist when it comes to creating products for commercial purposes, particularly in the U.K. It can be very costly, especially if like my products there are many ingredients, as each ingredient has to be tested by an independent and qualified chemist, and certified as safe, along with the payment of a steep fee per ingredient. This is why if you’ve ever checked, you’ll find that there are very few main or active ingredients in commercial cosmetics, and where a number exist, then the products themselves will be very expensive. Based on this information I let that particular business idea go. However, having said that, regulations aren’t as stringent here in the USA, with the FDA casting a blind eye over products that are deemed as having beauty benefits only. As long as they are not considered pharmaceuticals, then anything goes, which can be a tad worrying as much as it is liberating. That’s why sourcing trusted suppliers for cosmetic ingredients here in the U.S. is of paramount importance.
However, the beauty of making your own tailor-made beauty products is that you can include as many ingredients as you wish, and you can ensure, more importantly, that they are safe for your skin. My decision to stop buying commercial products was mostly fuelled by my skin sensitivity. I am particularly allergic to Citric Acid which in food is used as both a preservative and a flavour enhancer, and in cosmetics purely as a preservative. This noxious ingredient can be found in almost everything these days, and unlike its name suggests its production has no longer anything to do with citrus fruit. It is in fact a by-product of Penicillin mould and Corn Syrup, and side-effects though seemingly rare, do occur and can cause severe blistering and burning, amongst a list of other unpleasant symptoms, as is and has always been the case with me. I’m also allergic to Penicillin which explains much about the effects of this substance.
Bergapten is a little advertised chemical that is present specifically in the rinds of citrus fruit to varying degrees, and as a phytotoxin it can cause burning to the skin when exposed to sunlight. Another troublesome ingredient that I have always reacted adversely to. It is also present in many other natural herbs, especially in Lemon Verbena which remains on the list of prohibited substances for use in topical applications. There are cosmetics out there that state they smell of Lemon Verbena, but don’t worry it isn’t this stuff.
Bicarbonate of Soda is another ingredient used in many foods as a raising agent and stabiliser, and is an active ingredient in bath-bombs, giving them their fizz, and toothpaste where its cleansing properties are celebrated. However, it too can cause severe blistering, inside and out as with the other two, for those with sensitive skin. I only ever use bicarbonate of soda to clean my silver jewellery. It works wonders.
I therefore pay special attention to how I source my ingredients and from whom. In the last couple of years in particular more suppliers of natural raw ingredients and oils have sprung up as the popularity of natural and organic products have edged their way into mainstream commercial consciousness. When making your own products however, it helps to know what to look for, and what to avoid when purchasing raw ingredients.
The following is a list of the kinds of ingredients that you might use in a broad range of homemade cosmetic products, and what to look for in ensuring that you get the quality you should expect for your money. Also because quality in this instance means certified by industry standards and safe to use. Though in the U.S., once again this should be taken with a slight pinch of salt as the FDA regulations are way less stringent than they are in the U.K. and Europe.
Essential oils should be marked as ‘100% Pure Essential Oil’, and should be extracted through steam distillation as opposed to synthetic processes which can damage or remove beneficial qualities. Absolutes on the other hand are produced through organic solvent extraction which leaves behind a high concentrate of the plant’s natural oils, and tend to be much darker in colour than their steam distilled counterparts. They also tend to be much more expensive than regular essential oils. For example, Rose Otto, or Absolute, if authentic is actually a dark blue colour. Any other Rose oil claiming to be an Absolute that is light brown or reddish in tone is not an Absolute, it is just a regular essential oil, and may even have been produced synthetically. Good quality essential oils will always be sold in dark brown or blue bottles to protect them from light, and will have child-safe lids, and euro-droppers to prevent overdose should they accidentally be ingested.
Essential Oils and Absolutes are expensive, although a little goes a very long way, and despite the recommended shelf-life, they do in fact last for years if kept properly, though some will oxidise over time, losing potency and potentially becoming skin irritants. Generally though, they are a very good investment if you plan to use them regularly either for their health benefits or as fragrances in your homemade products. If using them for health benefits it is advised to discard them after two to four years, depending on the grade of the oil. Essential oil blends, usually a 5% ratio of essential oil to a base carrier oil do not tend to last as long, as carrier oils will degrade more rapidly. They are an inexpensive alternative to buying higher grade, purer oils, even though my advice would be to always buy pure oils when possible.
A good carrier oil should be cold pressed, deep in colour, and have a distinctive, often nutty fragrance, though this is not true of all oils. As with essential oils they should be sold in dark glass bottles in order to protect them from exposure to light, which can shorten their shelf life considerably.
Oils produced by mechanical or synthetic processes will suffer the same fate as essential oils produced in a similar way, and will often be stripped of their nutrients and thus their health benefits. It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed highly recommended to buy food grade oils, such as Olive Oil, Pumpkin Seed Oil, Almond Oil. In fact, due to the high regulations involved in producing food grade oils you can guarantee that they will be of a high quality. The same guarantee cannot be offered for cosmetic oils that are often not fit for consumption, and may well have been bleached to remove colour and smell, and even mixed with other base oils to increase volume. Also, cold pressed food grade oils tend to be cheaper and more widely available at local supermarkets and whole-food outlets. If you can’t put it in your body, then it’s probably not safe to put it on your body.
Butters and Waxes:
As with oils, you should aim to buy raw, organic ingredients that are not produced from crops treated with pesticides, or are extracted through mechanical or synthetic processes. They too should have a distinct colour and smell, as is the case with Cocoa butter. Food grade, raw cocoa butter has a deep chocolate fragrance, and is yellowish in colour. Using bleached butters and waxes is acceptable, but they may provide fewer health benefits. As cream or soap bases, the bleached varieties make for good bulking agents, but cost almost as much as their non-bleached counterparts.
The exception to the rule is beeswax, bleached or unbleached it is still just as potent, and its benefits are wide reaching. It’s incredible stuff.
Most butters and waxes have a very long shelf-life, though the softer butters such as Mango, Avocado, Shea, and Coconut Oil may not keep as long as the more solid ones. A butter or oil that has outlived its shelf life probably won’t smell all too pleasant, so that should be an indicator that it ought to be thrown out. It’s also an indicator that you possibly bought too much, and that it’s been sitting gathering dust in a cupboard. 🙂
You can usually purchase most raw ingredients in small enough quantities that will make a batch of soap or body butter, for example.
Caution should be exercised when buying fragrance oils designed for the purpose of soap or candle-making. The production of fragrance oils is a highly kept secret by the chemists in the know, so getting a list of ingredients is nigh on impossible. Some suppliers of soap and candle-making ingredients will sell fragrance oils, but not mention whether they are skin safe or not. If the bottle does not have a label on it stipulating whether it is skin-safe or not, then I would recommend not using it for cosmetics. It’s not worth taking the risk. Some suppliers of aromatherapy oils will also sell skin-safe fragrance oils. Again, never be too shy about contacting the supplier and asking them directly if their website does not have the information you are looking for. Once again however, safety regulations should be printed on the label of the bottle. If the manufacturer has gone to the expense of printing this on their label, then it is likely to be a mark of quality.
The best colourants are vegetable based dyes, either sold in liquid or powdered format. Synthetic dyes used in candle-making will not be safe for skin use. Personally I use ordinary food colourings that can easily be purchased at your local supermarket in the baking aisle. A little goes a long way, but again caution should be exercised if you have allergies or skin sensitivity.
The alternative is just to keep the colour of your products natural. As most oils, butters and waxes have an off-white to yellow complexion, most of your products will end up looking like a piece of white chocolate. I have used pure cocoa powder in my soaps before, and although it can look quite messy in the shower, the smell is wonderful, just don’t be tempted to eat your soap…!
Mineral powders include Clays, Micas, Charcoal, Salt and Sugar, to name the more common ones. Most clays, and Micas are relatively inert, although it’s worth bearing in mind that these are composed of raw minerals, and that any warning mentioned along with the product and its usage should be adhered to. Clays and Micas are used in a variety of ways, from creating detoxifying face-masks to hardening and colouring agents in soap, as well as exfoliants. Clays are very fine mineral powders and therefore you should be careful not to breathe in the dust as it can be very detrimental to the lungs. Use a protective face mask when mixing clay powders into your products. This is hardly ever stipulated on the sites of suppliers that I have visited over the years, but it’s worth being aware of as frequent, unprotected use of such substances can lead to respiratory problems.
Only ever purchase cosmetic grade clays and mica powders from reputable suppliers.
Charcoal is known for its restorative and cleansing properties, as well as being an effective remover of toxins, and is a brilliant cleaner for teeth. It has no known side-effects. You should ensure that it is pure charcoal powder you are purchasing. Food grade, and activated charcoal is also available from various suppliers. Art suppliers also sell powdered charcoal, although it is likely to be more expensive.
Sugar for use in sugar scrubs is readily purchased from your local supermarket or convenience store. It’s worth experimenting with different kinds.
A preservative is a crucial ingredient when wishing to improve the shelf-life of your products, though good storage and care of your homemade cosmetics can go a long way without the addition of potentially harmful chemicals.
Citric Acid, which comes in white powder form is often sold as a preservative when making soap or body butters, especially as body butters have a very short shelf life due to their high water content. Body butters can be kept in the fridge or frozen in order to extend their life.
Extreme caution should be exercised when using such preservatives, especially if you are prone to allergies or have sensitive skin. Personally, I like to use other ingredients with natural antiseptic and preservative properties in my products, such as beeswax, although beeswax and honey in particular can also cause irritation due to Bergapten being present in the oils of the flowers that the honey or beeswax was made from.
Propolis Tincture produced from beeswax is an alternative preservative, though it is often suspended in an alcoholic solution, so has quite a strong smell and may affect the over all appeal of your products.
Bicarbonate of Soda is another popular ingredient, mostly used in making bath bombs, but also as a preservative. Again, it is a known irritant and caution should be exercised in its use.
As well as being an effective preservative, salt can be used in a number of other ways, as an exfoliant or as a hardening agent in soap, for instance. There are many different kinds of salt available each with their own health benefits. The best kinds to use in your products are rock and sea salt which offer the highest concentration of beneficial properties, and are readily available in local supermarkets and health food outlets. Salt is a fantastic curative as it has high antiseptic properties and aids in speedy healing of minor skin aberrations and problems
Again it is worth doing your research and finding safer alternatives often already present in the essential oils and other ingredients that you may use. In fact just adding a drop or two of Grapefruit Essential Oil seems to preserve things almost indefinitely. It’s magical stuff so long as you aren’t sensitive to the high levels of Bergapten in it.
By far the best way of preserving your homemade delights is to create solid bars that are devoid of any water. This also makes travelling abroad with them a lot easier. No need to put them in the plastic cabin bag.
Dry and powdered vegetable and animal matter:
These ingredients range from dried petals that you can decorate your soap bars with, to milk powders in creating luxuriant soaps, to detoxifying seaweed powders like Japanese Spirulina which is extremely potent and should be used only in small quantities. Vegetable powders can also be used as an alternative colourant.
Any dried vegetable or animal matter should have been produced pesticide, and chemical free. Even trace elements can be harmful with prolonged use. Again, buy these from reputable soap-making suppliers as they are likely to have met regulatory standards. There are also a number of other vegetable ingredients you can use that are readily available in your local supermarket along with dairy powders such as goat’s milk, and will have met food grade standards, as well as being much cheaper.
Used coffee grounds for example make a wonderful exfoliant in hand soap, and general remover of grease and muck, and have the added benefit of stimulating blood flow in the skin, as well as absorbing unpleasant odours. You can be quite creative in this respect with common herbs, spices and food stuffs. I’ve also been known to use infusions of herb and black teas both for their colour and health benefits. Black tea is known for its protective properties against UV damage, and is an essential ingredient when making sun-screen. Better still, you can purchase Camellia Oil from certain aromatherapy suppliers. Black tea is produced from the leaves of the Camellia plant.
Even raw, natural ingredients can have harmful effects if used incorrectly or in too high a quantity. Essential oils for example should be respected and used with extreme caution as they are highly concentrated plant extracts, and as mentioned above, often contain traces of potentially toxic chemicals. They should only ever be used in moderation due to their potency, as some are also very toxic in large quantity. It pays to do your research when it comes to any chemical compound, natural or no in any product that you may make, and to pay attention to the manufacturers warnings if there are any. And if there aren’t, do not accept a product on face value if you have sensitive skin, or have other health issues or concerns.
Most reputable suppliers of essential oils and base ingredients will be diligent enough to outline potential risks and usage requirements on each of their products, and should be more than willing to assist you should you wish to contact them directly for advice. If not, find someone else. Again, it pays to do your research in finding a reliable, and trustworthy supplier. There are a number of companies out there in the world who are more than happy to sell you inferior products while claiming their high quality benefits, and often for a heavy and possibly detrimental price tag, commercial products included!
When sourcing suppliers it is worth paying especial attention to those who cite high regulatory standards when it comes to the production of their goods. Products that are tagged as being ‘Organic’ may not be as safe and as healthy as they sound. Also reading customer reviews from multiple sources is a good indicator as to the quality of a particular product, and equally the respectability of a company.
Lastly, storage of your fine ingredients is important. You should aim to store them in a cool, dry, dark place. With butters I double bag them. Self-sealing freezer bags are great and will prevent them from being exposed to air or strong smells. I keep my essential oils in wooden aromatherapy boxes which can be purchased online from any good aromatherapy supplier. A sturdy cardboard box will also do, and will help protect your various oils from light.
In conclusion, the advantage of doing your research and being informed about the products you use is that not only will you be able to create safe and healthy products for yourself and others should you choose to do so, but you also have the freedom to be very creative with your ingredients and your creations. Making your own cosmetic products is not particularly time consuming, nor messy, and is well worth the effort and the investment because of the multitude of benefits that it offers. It is also a delightful way to spend an afternoon. My husband calls it alchemy. He’s right!
It also really impresses friends and family, and makes for very luxurious gifts. Why not give it a go!
If you want tips and advice on how to begin, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to help.
Thanks for reading!